For a couple of weeks, I’ve been meaning to post about German Voynich blogger Elias Schwerdtfeger and what he calls the VMs’ “biological paradox”. His question is simple: why is it that the Voynich’s “biological” Quire 13 has both (a) complicated pictures of nymphs, tubes and baths, and (b) longwinded, redundant text? Surely, he asks, isn’t this combination somewhat paradoxical?
(To be honest, Elias’ post then goes off on a bit of a wild tangent: but given that it’s a good starting point and the whole issue of Q13 is a favourite of mine, I thought I’d step up to the line.)
Page f78r (one of the few that Leonell Strong was able to examine) has a number of good examples of this redundancy, in particular para 1 line 5’s “qokedy qokedy dal qokedy qokedy“, for which Strong’s 1945 worksheet #2 suggests the decryption “DUCTLE ROULLS THE GRAOTH COEMLI”.
This is the same piece of ciphertext about which Gordon Rugg asserted “This degree of repetition is not found in any known language“ (Sci Am, 2004). Of course, linguist Jacques Guy ferociously responded to this Ruggish in sci.lang firing off real-life counter-examples such as “di mana-mana ada barang-barang. Barang-barang itu…” As always, there’s a fair degree of truth in what both are saying: but the fact (as Elias points out) that only some parts of the Voynichese corpus read like “qokedy qokedy” is a pretty good indication that we can’t reduce this debate to an either-or between these two opposing poles. Essentially, it can’t be just a simple repetitive language if it’s not consistent throughout (and it isn’t): and beneath all the cryptographic window-dressing, there probably is some kind of meaningful language thing going on.
I’d say that Mark Perakh’s (1999) tentative conclusion on the language differences probably yields the most useful key to Elias’ paradoxical door. Mark wondered about the internal structural differences (i.e. within words) between Voynich Manuscript A and B language pages (and all the text that shades between A & B) and so carried out some tests: ultimately, his favoured explanation is that the A language is a more abbreviated & contracted version of the B language, but that beneath it all, they are still both expressions of the same thing. (Though Mark points to contraction probably being the main mechanism used).
So, the text in Q13 – as a B language object – therefore exhibits redundant probably because it is more verbose. This suggests that we should be looking to decipher the B text, simply because we stand less chance of being distracted by the A text’s arbitrary contractions.
My own take is a little more nuanced (though still hypothetical, lest I raise the hackles of the hypothesis police once more). Firstly, I suspect that the A pages were written first, and that these were trying to duplicate an existing document using a verbose cipher – meaning that a ciphertext line wouldn’t map to the same physical space as a plaintext line. The only way to fit it in was to aggressively abbreviate & contract… but this helped make the ciphertext more opaque.
Then, I suspect that the B pages were added, using smaller quills (say, eagle’s feather?) – because the smaller letter sizes took the pressure off the overall line lengths, the need for contraction and abbreviation was reduced. However, I think some aspects of the coding system changed (specifically the steganographic numbering scheme, but that’s another story!), making the B pages harder to break in a different way.
That is, I suspect that we have two types of ciphertext present in the VMs: a simpler cipher system A (but with a significant amount of contraction and abbreviation) or a more complex cipher system B (but with less contraction and abbreviation to distract us). And just to make things really difficult, there are probably system B pages that are also heavily contracted (i.e. the worst of both worlds).
And some people still wonder why computers can’t break the VMs! *sigh*